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Juvenile Justice System Process

If your child has been arrested for a Juvenile Crime in the Tampa Bay Area including St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Pinellas County, Tampa, Hillsborough County, or surrounding counties, contact the Morris Law Firm, P.A. for specific information and experience on Juvenile Crimes cases in Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota, and Hillsborough Counties.

St. Petersburg Juvenile Justice Lawyer

What is the Juvenile Justice System?

Criminal offenses committed by a person under the age of 18 in Florida are typically handled by the Juvenile Justice System. The Juvenile Justice System focuses on rehabilitating youthful offenders as opposed to the adult court system which is punitive in nature.

The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) has a major role in the administration of the Juvenile Justice System in Florida along with the Court system. The Florida Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) has a mission to, “increase public safety by reducing juvenile delinquency through effective prevention, intervention and treatment services that strengthen families and turn around the lives of troubled youth.”

It should be noted that in some cases, a juvenile offense may be “Direct Filed” to adult court. Direct Filed juvenile criminal cases are usually the result of a repeat juvenile offender, and / or a juvenile offender who has committed a serious crime.


What is the Juvenile Justice System Process?

Many parents and guardians of youthful offenders want to know what their child will encounter as they move through the Juvenile Justice System. Understanding the process will allow parents and guardians to be knowledgeable and properly involved in supporting their child.

A juvenile criminal case may proceed as follows:

1. Law Enforcement
i. Law enforcement arrests the accused at the time of the crime. Law enforcement completes an arrest document which states the charges against the accused. If there is no arrest at the time of the crime, law enforcement investigates.
ii. Law enforcement presents a sworn complaint with evidence to the State Attorney’s Office. The State Attorney determines if there is probable cause to believe that the suspect committed the crime (see filing decision).

2. Detention Hearing
If the juvenile is held in the detention center the court holds a detention hearing within 24 hours of the arrest. It is usually held the morning after the arrest. The Judge decides whether to release the defendant and if so, what conditions are necessary to protect the victim. The judge can order the defendant to have “no contact” with the victim or witness. If the Judge does not release the defendant, he or she may remain in the detention center for up to 21 days.

3. The State Attorney Investigation
Once the State Attorney’s Office receives the formal complaint from law enforcement, an Assistant State Attorney (ASA) will review the case, and when necessary, take testimony (interview under oath) from the victims and witnesses in the case. If the ASA determines that there is sufficient evidence, charges may be filed. The formal charging document is called a “petition.” Sometimes the State is unable to file formal charges against the juvenile, and a “no petition” is filed. The reasons for this decision may involve any or all of the following: lack of evidence, the victim’s desire to have the case dismissed, inability to locate witnesses, legal defects in the case, etc. Sometimes after the ASA files a petition, new evidence arises, and the ASA may decide to no longer prosecute the case. This is called a “nolle prosequi.” If either a “no petition” or a “nolle prosequi” is filed, the investigation is over and the case is closed, the juvenile will however still have an arrest record that can be Sealed / Expunged.

4. Pre-trial Diversion Programs
There are several pre-trial diversion programs available to first-time offenders. Most commonly first-time offenders are referred to Teen Court. Teen Court is a non-judicial juvenile diversion program for youth under 18 years of age and is a part of the Juvenile Arbitration Program.

5. Arraignment
After filing a petition, the juvenile defendant is entitled to an arraignment hearing. At the arraignment, the defendant is notified of the charges against him/her. If the parent / guardian has not already hired an attorney, the Judge determines if the defendant needs the assistance of an attorney. If the defendant cannot afford to hire an attorney, the court appoints a public defender to represent them. At this time, either the defendant or their attorney enters a plea of guilty, not guilty or nolo contendere (no contest) to the charge. If a plea of “not guilty” is entered, the case proceeds through the system. If a plea of “guilty” or “no contest” is entered, the defendant may be sentenced immediately, or the case may be set for a disposition hearing (see below).

6. Discovery / Depositions
Florida law allows the defense attorney to interview witnesses prior to trial. This interview is called a “deposition.” The victim/witness may receive a subpoena from the defendant’s attorney requiring the victim to appear to have their deposition taken. The victim/witness will be sworn in prior to having their deposition taken, and it will be taken before an official court reporter, the defense attorney and the ASA. This interview will be tape-recorded. The defendant will not be present during the deposition.

7. Pretrial Conference
The pretrial conference hearing is held one week prior to trial. The Defendant is required to appear in Court, and this is the last chance to plead to the charges.

8. Non-Jury Trial
Juvenile cases are tried before a Judge only with no jury. The defendant may or may not present witnesses on their behalf. The defendant may or may not testify. The defendant does have the right to be in the courtroom during the trial.

9. Pre-Dispositional Reports (PDR)
Often the Court requests that the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) complete a PDR on the defendant before sentencing. This is an inquiry into the background, criminal history and circumstances of the defendant. The PDR includes a sentencing recommendation for the Judge to review.

10. Disposition Hearing
The Judge sentences the defendant in a manner appropriate to the crime and other circumstances related to the case. The Judge may either place the defendant on juvenile probation, or commitment to the DJJ at one of four levels: Low-risk programs that last from 30-45 days, Moderate risk programs that last from 4-6 months, High-risk programs that last from 6-9 months, and Juvenile Prison that lasts from 18-36 months.

11. Compliance Hearing

If the defendant fails to comply with their probation requirements, they may be set for a compliance hearing. Compliance hearings are generally reserved for failure to pay back restitution and/or court costs.


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Florida Law on the Juvenile Justice System:

Florida State Statute Chapter 985 defines and addresses the Juvenile Justice System including the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice’s role in administering aspects of the system.

In summary:

  • Florida segregates juvenile offenders from their adult counterparts, although there has been an expansion of the circumstances under which a juvenile can be prosecuted as an adult. Youthful offenders continue to be managed under a strategy of redirection and rehabilitation, rather than punishment. Although the State of Florida has strengthened its hold on juvenile offenders under the “Tough Love” plan, the system has maintained focus on “treatment” designed to effect positive behavioral change.


The Statue states in part:

985.01 Purposes and intent.
(1) The purposes of this chapter are:
(a) To provide judicial and other procedures to assure due process through which children and other interested parties are assured fair hearings by a respectful and respected court or other tribunal and the recognition, protection, and enforcement of their constitutional and other legal rights, while ensuring that public safety interests and the authority and dignity of the courts are adequately protected.
(b) To provide for the care, safety, and protection of children in an environment that fosters healthy social, emotional, intellectual, and physical development; to ensure secure and safe custody; and to promote the health and well-being of all children under the state’s care.
(c) To ensure the protection of society, by providing for a comprehensive standardized assessment of the child’s needs so that the most appropriate control, discipline, punishment, and treatment can be administered consistent with the seriousness of the act committed, the community’s long-term need for public safety, the prior record of the child, and the specific rehabilitation needs of the child, while also providing whenever possible restitution to the victim of the offense.
(d) To preserve and strengthen the child’s family ties whenever possible, by providing for removal of the child from parental custody only when his or her welfare or the safety and protection of the public cannot be adequately safeguarded without such removal; and, when the child is removed from his or her own family, to secure custody, care, and discipline for the child as nearly as possible equivalent to that which should have been given by the parents; and to assure, in all cases in which a child must be permanently removed from parental custody, that the child be placed in an approved family home, adoptive home, independent living program, or other placement that provides the most stable and permanent living arrangement for the child, as determined by the court.
(e)1. To assure that the adjudication and disposition of a child alleged or found to have committed a violation of Florida law be exercised with appropriate discretion and in keeping with the seriousness of the offense and the need for treatment services, and that all findings made under this chapter be based upon facts presented at a hearing that meets the constitutional standards of fundamental fairness and due process.
2. To assure that the sentencing and placement of a child tried as an adult be appropriate and in keeping with the seriousness of the offense and the child’s need for rehabilitative services, and that the proceedings and procedures applicable to such sentencing and placement be applied within the full framework of constitutional standards of fundamental fairness and due process.
(f) To provide children committed to the department with training in life skills, including career education.

(2) It is the intent of the Legislature that this chapter be liberally interpreted and construed in conformity with its declared purposes.


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Issues / Potential Defenses:

Severe Consequences – Although the Florida Juvenile Justice System is focused on rehabilitation, there are still severe consequences that may be administered. Any conviction, especially if Direct Filed, could follow a child for their life affecting future academic and employment opportunities. Arguments may be made to have the charges reduced or dropped altogether.

Lack of Evidence – As is common in Juvenile cases evidence is often gathered quickly and without proper process by law enforcement. Arguments may be made to have the charges dropped based on lack of evidence in the case.

Mistaken Identity – Again common in Juvenile Offenses, minors often misidentify peers / defendants when a crime has occurred. Arguments may be made to have the charges dropped based on mistaken identity.

Parental Liability – Florida law allows the juvenile court to order a parent / guardian to pay restitution to the victim of a juvenile crime up to $2,500 for each criminal episode in which your child is involved. You may also be sued outside of juvenile court for damages done to property by your child. Having the charges dropped against your child minimizes the opportunity for lawsuits against parents / guardians.


We will strive to file any necessary motions to dismiss or motions to attempt to exclude evidence in an effort to maximize your child’s opportunity for a positive outcome. As your criminal defense lawyer, we will represent your child at any necessary pre-trial hearings, pre-trial motions, and at trial.


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What To Do Next:

If your child has been arrested for a Juvenile Offense:

1. Don’t speak to the police – ask to have an attorney present.
2. Don’t give a written statement – again, ask to have an attorney present.
3. Contact an attorney immediately.
4. Collect and document your own evidence.


Time is of the essence.
Time is of the essence.

You have a very narrow window of time between when you are arrested and when the State Attorney’s office makes a decision to file a criminal charge against you. Hiring an attorney immediately to negotiate on your behalf gives you the best chance of avoiding criminal charges.

Hire the Morris Law Firm and let us fight for you


 Morris Law Firm, P.A. | Juvenile Justice System in Pinellas County

If your child has been arrested for a Juvenile Crime, contact a juvenile defense attorney in St. Petersburg to discuss possible defenses and specific strategies that may exist in your case. Call the  Morris Law Firm, P.A. at (727) 388-4736 to discuss your case directly with an attorney, or fill out our online form to be contacted for a Free Initial Consultation. The  Morris Law Firm, P.A. defends Juvenile Offenders throughout Pinellas County and the entire Tampa Bay, FL area, including St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Tampa, Hillsborough, Pasco, Bradenton, Manatee, and Sarasota.